Category Archives: Alpine Hiking

Gray Green Beautiful Scene

Alaska is large.  Who knew?  It felt like it was going to take a looong time to get from Talkeetna to Whittier, where we would go on the half day glacier cruise the next day.  And so it did, but we saw some cool stuff along the way.  We took a detour up Hatcher Pass, which is known for some historic mining buildings.  It turned out to be a long detour–a long, beautiful detour with territory ripe for exploration. We didn’t exactly hike a lot, but the potential is off the charts, especially as we gained elevation. Such gorgeous, open country.  I kept wanting to make comparisons to other places, but they fall short.  Alaska is its own world.

The mountains and valleys we saw on that detour are but a mere wrinkle in the landscape of Alaska.  And there’s more.  Lots more.  The weather wasn’t great, so we didn’t stop much more until we passed Anchorage.  Once we were driving along the water, we started looking for whales, specifically Belugas.  No luck. That’s okay. It was still a cool part of the Alaska experience.  More to come.

 

Alaska’s Savage Alpine Trail

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Just another view in Alaska

Denali National Park is so big, the bus ride from the visitor’s center to the end of the road, which is not even at the far end of the park, is over 90 miles.  Denise and I had only one day to see what we could, and the park entrance is over a two hour drive from Talkeetna.  That doesn’t count our requisite random mountain photo stops.  Denali dominates the landscape much of the way, but beyond that, there were countless lesser peaks, some glacier draped, some craggy, some forested.  The entirety of these peaks, these wild areas, borders on overwhelming.  It is good to know that such wilderness still exists when development threatens it in so many other places.

 

At the visitor center, we asked a few questions, used the plumbing, saw some exhibits, then headed toward a spot I’d already considered based on a tip from my sister Sarah.  She and my niece had been in the park a few months earlier, and they had love the Savage Alpine Trail, a dozen miles into the park.  Good enough for me!

The Savage Alpine Trail is a point to point hike with a car or bus shuttle in between.  We opted for the closer beginning because we found parking there and heard it could be tight at the far end.  The trail climbed casually through a scrubby forest above a creek, with views popping out here and there.  Eventually we started climbing the side of a ridge, and views became far reaching in short order.  We passed other hikers, and they passed us back a few times until the trail began climbing in earnest, switchbacking above the treeline into a world dotted with rocks and various ground cover.  Denise was the one pushing the pace.  I was almost giddy with excitement to hike in such terrain.  I love open alpine ecosystems.

Descending hikers told us there were Dall sheep hanging out near the trail above us.   It would be our first large Alaskan mammal sighting.   We rounded a sort of promontory and got stunning views of the broad ridge above us, but more importantly, to the Alaska Range in the other direction.   We were probably fifty miles from Denali, and range after range were in front of it.  They could not hide the massive peak’s majesty.  I geeked out on the terrain right here, on the shoulder of a minor peak, only a two mile hike from the road.   Then we turns up hill and saw the sheep.  They were lying in repose on a rocky crest above the trail, seemingly at ease with hikers nearby.  Awesome.

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The trail descends a bowl in an arc, then angles toward a rocky spur.  It was fun terrain that got challenging on that spur, where we navigated among small crags and descended steep rock steps.  No casual switchbacks here. It was an entirely different trail than the one we’d casually climbed.  It made me wonder if traversing the route the other direction was more popular and easier on middle aged knees.  There certainly seemed to be more hikers at this end.  The snowy high peaks of the Alaska Range seemed to tease us in the distance.  At the same time, the farther we descended, the more we could see of the shining Savage River.  The final half mile took longer than expected, but the views were always there, in every direction.

At the bottom of our descent, I wandered along the Savage River while we waited for the shuttle bus.  This was a fantastic introduction to Denali National Park.  Certain spots and certain views reminded me of places I’d seen in Colorado or California, but ultimately, Alaska is always its own place.  The scale is too grand to compare to anywhere else in the U.S.  I hope I’ll be back for more.  For now, it was beer thirty, and then we would move on to other Alaskan adventures.

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The river was more beautiful than savage

Finally: Tomlike Mountain

Mount Adams from afar

Mount Adams from afar

I first noticed Tomlike Mountain on a backpacking trip decades ago.  For a modest peak in the northern Oregon Cascades, it was wild-looking. For some reason, I skipped Tomlike on my way to Benson Plateau.  I found great views elsewhere but always wondered what I’d missed. On Labor Day of 2015, I found out.  Yes, it was worth the wait–and the drive.

A long hike up Herman Creek or some other point 45 miles or so from Portland would make the climb a solid twenty mile round trip.  My gray hairs would need an extra day to recover from that. No thanks.  A longer drive to Wahtum Lake cut the hike by more than half.  It seemed a no brainer, so packed a bag and headed for Hood River.  When I finally got to the trailhead, a few clouds hung overhead, and the brush in the lower elevations was still wet.  I had to hope the clouds would clear.  The walking was easy, as the trail arced around Wahtum Lake to meet with the PCT.  I found no hikers until I neared the Tomlike herdpath peeled off of the Herman Creek Trail.

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Shortly after departing the main trail, the forest started opening up, the surface vegetation diversified, and the trail got rougher.  This is not an official path, but it is relatively easy to follow.  There is some thick brush, a few dead end spurs, and some rocky patches.  It’s exactly the kind of hiking I enjoy–especially when the views started getting sublime.  Herman Creek’s large canyon dropped away to the right, with the tiny puddle of Mud Lake at its base and rockslides scarring the canyon walls.  As I climbed, I got a few views towards the summit, but it was a long and winding path to get there.

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The views continued astonishing me when I was fully above treeline.  I enjoyed views in all directions, gawking back at Mount Hood’s majesty as well as tracing with my eye the route I’d followed years before to Chinidere Mountain and the obvious pancake spot of Benson Plateau along the mighty PCT. To the north, over the shoulder of a far ridge, the impressive mass of Mount Adams loomed in a fresh white coat of snow. I continued climbing, huffing and puffing just a bit.  Tomlike Mountain’s summit was quiet and calm.  I’d thought I’d need my jacket, but I remained in shirtsleeves.  I contemplate the massive drop off to the west that felt like the escarpment on a much larger peak.

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As always, I was supremely content while sitting on that summit.  THe views, the air, the earth beneath me all seemed so right. I had to get up for work at six a.m. the following day.  There were bills to pay and chores to complete.  For a few hours, however, not a bit of that mattered.  The world was wild and beautiful and I was close to its essence.  The movement of muscle, bone and tendon over mountain terrain is still invigorating even as it fatigues me more than in decades past.  Tomlike Mountain charged my batteries for the week.  This was a very satisfying hike.

On the way back, a different look at the lake

On the way back, a different look at the lake

Descending a minor peak can be boring, especially when one is tired.  That’s one reason I took a  variation, the Anthill Trail, to return to my vehicle.  Thankfully I was rewarded with a couple final wonderful photos opportunities.  This is definitely an area to explore, with several other minor peaks nearby.  For now, however, it’s back to work.

The light on these reddish bushes suggested autumn was coming

A final bit of sunlight told me autumn was coming

Fernando, Fatigue, and Glacier Gawking

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I stayed up way past my bedtime Saturday night.  That’s okay, it was in support of the great Fernando Viciconte and his band of merry men rocking their way through the night.  He has an album coming out later this month featuring heavy hitters like Peter Buck of REM.  You should check it out if you like rootsy rock with a twist.  He happens to be one of the nicest guys  I know too.

So that’s why I was tuckered on Sunday, and my hiking ambitions started to lag. I can be pretty lazy if I allow doubts to linger.  The forecast called for more heat.  Bagging a peak would be nice, but nothing within a 90 minute drive sounded appealing.   I decided to fall back on an old standby and headed to Timberline Lodge, which was having its last day of summer skiing–actually early for them due to the unusual heat.

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I had no particular plan, but ended up choosing to ad lib an adventure along the upper reaches of White River Canyon.  The entire area is above treeline, so navigation is both easy and difficult.  I started going straight up a ski lift acess road, which was a mistake in that I was now far from the trail I wanted to be on.  So I sidehilled across multiple small drainages, finding the last remants of natural snow, mostly buried beneath a coat of dirt, presumably windblown.

Strange piles of dirt in the bottom of the drainages that seemed to have been the subject of violence.  Large cracks crossed the deep brown soil.  I surmised it might be from soil once blown atop snow which later melted, undermining the dirt, creating the cracks. Just a theory, and probably not a very good one.

The weather was not terrific, with rain falling briefly and winds buffeting me almost constantly.  Still,  the temperature was comfortable once I’d donned a shell.   I climbed slowly, and was slightly depressed when a younger man toting a couple ice axes passed me.   By the time I turned around, I was probably lose to 8000 feet, and as a lowland dweller now, the altitude taxed me more than it used to.

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Skiers and snowboarders were enjoying their last turns for a while.  I watched them for a while, but ultimately found White River Glacier and White River Canyon more fascinating.  My descent was easier than the climb, although I was reflecting on the unique dynamic of hiking in wild environs not far from a ski lift.   I was a speck on the horizon to them, but they were omnipresent to me.   Had I ventured to a similar alpine area on any other side of the mountain, it would be an all day affair rather than the few hours I spent above Timberline.  That’s the trade off.

I had lots of ashy soil to pour out of my boots when I was done, and I was glad to get back to a place where the water actually looked clear.

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Giving Thanks for the Squirrels

Life does not always proceed according to plan. Okay, it almost never does.  And besides my self imposed tangents (Squirrel!), much has changed in my life since I started this blog.  I do not get to climb as many mountains as I like, but I savor memories of trips to the Wallowas, like this gray summit day on Eagle Cap where I was surprised to see a squirrel at well over 9000 feet.

The squirrel seemed to toy with me.   Matterhorn in the  background

The squirrel seemed to toy with me. Matterhorn in the background

I hope to continue feeling grateful for what I do have, like a great family, and what I am able to do, such as hiking on occasion rather than what I do not have or have not done.  Happy Thanksgiving, and happy hiking.

The Easy Way Up: Palm Springs Tram

The view from the base of the tram

The view from the base of the tram

The Palm Springs aerial tramway is reminiscent of the tram I rode outside Albuquerque, New Mexico last summer.  Both gain a lot of elevation in a hurry, transporting passengers from the desert to a subalpine ecosystem.  The Palm Springs tram wins the innovation contest, because its cab spins two complete revolutions during the ten minute trip up Chino Canyon.   Thus each passenger can effectively see in all directions.

Pretty open forest with some meadow areas above 8000 feet

Pretty open forest with some meadow areas above 8000 feet

At the upper end of the tram, there is a lodge with a restaurant and bar, a mini movie theatre, viewing decks, and access to wilderness trails.  We soon had a group of folks traipsing around the mountainside on a loop trail.  Interpretive signs dotted the path.  I learned that the bark of a Jeffrey Pine smells like vanilla (some people say butterscotch).  Who knew?

A friend saw the letter Y; I saw a face

A friend saw the letter Y; I saw a face

Our path led us from a pleasant meadow through pine forests forest to cliff’s edge on five occasions.  The views ranged from great to spectacular.  Ridges and canyons plunged more than a mile to the vast desert plains where across the Coachella Valley we could see the Salton Sea.

An amazing domelike cliff reminiscent of Tuolomne Meadows

An amazing domelike cliff reminiscent of Tuolomne Meadows

I felt at home in the mountain environment, and I could have stayed there for days, hiking off into the wilderness and peakbagging in perfect weather.   Mount San Jacinto, one of the tallest peaks in Southern California, is nearby.  The only concern is water.  Signs on the highway below don’t tell drivers to be safe.  They tell drivers to conserve water.   I can’t help but wonder what will happen for Southern California residents if the drought continues.

Far off mountains

Far off mountains

Our loop skirted the edge of the massive escarpment looking down onto the desert.   I loved popping up to various viewpoints amid the rocks with slightly different views of desert, crags, and canyons.  It was also interesting to see the streets and land plot geometry of the dry cities in the brown world below.  Our group met back at the lodge on top of the tram for round of Bloody Marys.  Not bad at all.

The view through pines shows a mile drop to the desert

The view through pines shows a mile drop to the desert

The tram isn’t a freebie.  For two of us, we spent $47 and change for our tickets, but the experience was worthwhile.  Being able to make that quick trip to a completely different ecosystem was amazing.  If I returned, I would love to explore the area for a few more hours and climb a peak.  I hear there is a trail all the way back down to the desert that’s about 18 miles.   Anybody want to join  me?  🙂

Great shadows looking down the sides of Chino Canyon

Great shadows looking down the sides of Chino Canyon

White River Snowshoeing Memory

It was perfect day to get out on the snow

It was perfect day to get out on the snow

Today I stumbled onto a batch of photos from a few years ago.  Here, my stepson Casey and I are snowshoeing along the popular White River below the magnificent Mount Hood.  I recommend cross country skis to make the return trip faster and more fun.  You can go miles up the canyon before the terrain gets tough, and it’s mostly wide open.  Sadly, there isn’t that much snow this year.  Perhaps I shall return when more snow comes.

Wallowas View of Needle Point

Wallowas View of Needle Point

Ah, memories. Here is a look toward Needle Point from the backside of Eagle Cap in the Wallowa Mountains from a trip a few years ago. While not a spectacular photo, it’s a spectacular location. The hike from my camp in the gorgeous Lakes Basin was not too challenging, although this would be a fairly difficult one day hike.  I debated going off trail further toward Glacier Peak, but the weather was a bit iffy. I hope to revisit the Wallowas next summer. It is a prime hiking and scrambling area.

Bald Mountain to McNeil Point and Beyond

Bald Mountain

Early morning view west from Bald Mountain

Just over twenty minutes after leaving the Top Spur trailhead, I reached one of the classic Oregon hiking viewpoints.  Mount Hood looms large over the steep, bare flanks of Bald Mountain and the silvery strands of the Muddy Fork far below.  There is barely a spot wide enough to get comfortable for a photo.  The sun is in my face, so the first photos with my new Nikon don’t come out well.  Soon I dipped back into the trees, but this sort of spot is always a good start to a hike.

Don't lose sight of the forest for the trees...

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees…

My destination was the old CCC shelter at McNeil Point and the alpine terrain above it.  I’d been there a few times, but I’d never climbed above the shelter toward the upper reaches of Cathedral Ridge.  The hike is casual for the most part.  There are two great viewpoints along the way, one of which even has nice rock perches.

More open views along the way

More open views along the way

The Timberline Trail doesn’t officially go to the McNeil Point shelter, but there is spur trail heading up there.  There is also a steep climber’s trail which takes off alongside a tiny creek.  I missed it on my way by but found it after hopping across a rockslide.  This is much shorter than taking the official trail, but it is also much steeper—not for the faint of heart.

Love this little cascade

Love this little cascade

The shelter was as I remembered, a stone remnant of one of FDR’s stimulus programs.  It is a great spot to relax and absorb the views, with the glaciers and craggy ridges of the mountain looming above, and views into the maw of the Muddy Fork’s canyon below.  Across the canyon, the bulk of Yocum Ridge is enticing.  To the north, Mounts St. Helens, Rainier and Adams are all visible.

McNeil Point shelter

McNeil Point shelter

Upwards.  A hiker’s trail headed up through the alpine tundra world.  Vistas reminded me of the alpine scenes in The Sound of Music.  Serious.  I was feeling out of shape, so I took my time to snap photos and stay hydrated.

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The hills are alive…

40 minutes of hiking above the shelter, the trail vanishes and I wandered along a craggy ridgeline.  At first it was mere rock hopping, but eventually I needed to use my hands, and I finally had to commit to climbing with a lot of exposure.  The experience was reminiscent of the landscape along nearby Barrett Spur as well as the epic ridge traverse I did between Sacagawea and Matterhorn in the Wallowas in 2012. (Those are each classic Oregon hiking scrambles as well, but the traverse on the latter trip is only for seasoned alpine hikers.)

I like the different colors in here

I like the subtle color differences; note the strip of burnt forest from the Dollar Lake Fire.  Mt. Adams in background

The ridge was far more rugged than it had appeared from below, which is a good thing in my book.  Tough scrambling was worth it to stare at the face of Mount Hood from this vantage.  It might not be as tall as a lot of peaks, but it is, to borrow the old Columbia Sportswear ad, one tough mother.

Craggy scramble land

Craggy scramble land

Looking across at the base of Yocum Ridge

Looking across at the base of Yocum Ridge

Mount Hood glacier

The Sandy Glacier and wispy clouds on Mount Hood

The glacier.  A stream begins in the crescent shaped hole

The Sandy Glacier. A stream begins in the foreground hole

White wispy clouds gradually grew, and the skies slowly darkened.  Time to get going.  Other hikers appeared below along a grassy sub ridge adjacent to the Sandy Glacier.  I wondered if they were on a decent path, and I decided it looked like a safer route down.

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Easy scrambling here. This looks much smaller in the next photo.

Looking back the way I'd come

Looking back the way I’d come: some rock is loose, and some is solid

When I descended, I found no trail, and the hikers had vanished.  Some ridiculous talus slope hopping ensued.  Rocks teetered underfoot and slid on the micro-pebbles beneath.  It’s a broken ankle waiting to happen.  In retrospect, this was not my best choice, but I didn’t want to lose too much elevation.

Looking down the valley of the Muddy Fork

Looking down the Muddy Fork drainage. Bald Mountain is the bare spot on the right.

Eventually I traversed back to the path and enjoyed the last of the killer views before clouds cloaked the volcano.  With my scrambles on top of trail hiking, I probably ventured 10 or 11 miles, which is relatively modest, but more than 3000 feet of elevation gain and challenging scrambles made it a very respectable day in the mountains.

The signpost is tired.  Clouds obscure Mount Hood as I depart.

Back on the Timberline trail. Clouds obscure Mount Hood as I depart.

I would be sore the next day, but it was worth it.  I hadn’t known what to expect from the terrain.  What I found was an experience that fits perfectly in the pantheon of classic Oregon hiking trips.

The Black Crow King on High

The Black Crow King on High

A crow on Cathedral Ridge above McNeil Point on Mount Hood. I’d never heard a crow be so noisy in more than a caw-caw way. Hiking above the well known McNeil Point shelter led to great scrambling, nasty talus slopes, and various spectacular views. More to come.